He has designed clothes for Jackie Kennedy, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Princess Diana. His designs have graced the covers of Vogue and Harpers. He has spent 50 years at the top in an industry that rarely permits even the most talented to shine for more than a couple of decades. But David Sassoon became a fashion designer only because his father disapproved of his first choice of career — acting.
The revelation comes in his new book, The Glamour of Bellville Sassoon - written with fashion writer Sinty Stemp and with a foreword by the doyenne of fashion journalists, Suzy Menkes. It details Sassoon’s life and career, from his earliest days in North London, where he grew up with his Iraqi-born parents, Gourgi and Victoria Sassoon, to his current position as Britain’s top couturier.
Although he had a precocious interest in fashion, creating, aged 11, clothes for his younger sister, his real interest lay elsewhere. “I wanted to be an actor, but my father was dead-set against it,” he recalls.
“He encouraged me to do what he thought was the lesser of two evils. I won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, but sadly, my father died that year so he never really saw my progress in fashion.”
That progress was kickstarted even before Sassoon graduated. “Belinda Bellville came to my final-year show [in 1958] and offered me a job,” he says, “I was very blessed and very lucky.”
Bellville, a socialite who knew the world of the aristocracy, had a dressmaking business in Belgravia. Her background could hardly have been more different from that of Sassoon — he was proudly Jewish, a one-time pupil at Avigdor High School and a member of Lauderdale Road Synagogue in West London, who brought along his own following — “the well-off, young Jewish marrieds”, notably from the Sephardi community.
“Belinda was a big influence because she understood the lifestyle of the women we dressed,” he says. “We would design a collection around the wardrobe that a woman, who had a certain amount of money to spend, would need for her lifestyle. You know, for Ascot you need such-and-such — this was in the couture days, remember — and clients would always need a cocktail dress, a dinner dress and an evening dress. We began to get a reputation for making very glamorous evening wear. We converted some stables in Knightsbridge into a wonderful, very modern showroom — no chandeliers or gilt or plush. And because we were in the press so much, the whole world came to see it. One of our clients was Mrs David Bruce, the wife of the then American ambassador and one of the best-dressed women in the world. She brought Jackie Kennedy to us. And people like Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Collins, Audrey Hepburn, Candice Bergen all came to us.”
It was — to use the cliché — the swinging ’60s and Sassoon was living the myth: “I used to walk down the King’s Road, all dressed up to the nines. I had an Afro hairstyle, velvet trousers and embroidered tops — it was full-on flower-power. It was probably the most exciting period in terms of Bellville Sassoon’s creativity — conventions were all thrown out the window.”
Many fashion houses dress celebrities; what made Bellville Sassoon unique was its expanding royal clientele, which hugely increased its media profile and, as a result, the desirability of its clothes. Sassoon’s first visit to Buckingham Palace was in 1958, to oversee the fitting of a bridesmaid’s dress for Princess Anne.
“I was thrilled, but I was disappointed to have to go in through the tradesman’s entrance. Princess Anne was eight. She had braces on her teeth and Clarks sandals on her feet. When the Queen arrived to see the fitting, I walked backwards to make a little bow and stepped on the corgis’ water bowl, splashing my shoes. But I thought it was very sweet — the Queen asked if the dress would wash.”
Subsequently, his list of royal clients included the late Princess Margaret, Princess Michael of Kent, the Duchess of York and “the lovely Diana”, the Princess of Wales, referred to in the Bellville Sassoon appointments book as “Miss Buckingham” to preserve her privacy.
It was Sassoon who dressed Diana for many of the key moments in her life — there was the daring black, strapless gown she spilled out of in 1981 for a benefit recital just days after the announcement of her engagement, the blue sailor suit for the official engagement pictures with the Queen and Prince Charles, and, later, some 70 pieces, including coats, suits, day dresses and formal, ethereal dresses for official engagements.
“Diana was very charismatic, but what was so nice was that she didn’t take fashion that seriously. She was much less grand than the other royals. She was always very appreciative, always wrote little thank-you notes and sent little gifts. She was very warm and very considerate and had a great sense of humour.”
Sassoon says that now, at 76, it is time to take “a back seat” and hand over to the talented Irish designer Lorcan Mullany who joined the firm when Belinda Bellville retired. “I feel there should be a younger input,” he says.
He attributes the longevity of Bellville Sassoon to its ability to stick to doing what it does best — make glamorous garments women enjoy wearing. “We have always tried to make clothes that are kind and flattering.”
And he values highly his Jewish clientele, noting that Bellville Sassoon still does “a tremendous amount for weddings and barmitzvahs, because Jewish women like to dress up for these occasions. They have been very big business for us over the years.”